How Twitter helped create "decentralized coordination" during Haiti's earthquake. This is from a fascinating new paper titled “Beacons of Hope” in Decentralized Coordination: Learning from On-the-Ground Medical Twitterers During the 2010 Haiti Earthquake" by Sarcevic et al. It is the first paper I see that applies virtual ethnography to disaster relieve. In short: a decentralized problem needs a decentralized response.
. . . this paper aims to study a large-scale, fast-paced, and stressful coordination activity that is highly distributed and decentralized—medical coordination during disaster response. We extend the methods of virtual ethnography by systematically mining a comprehensive set of Haiti- related social media data to investigate the 2010 Haiti earthquake emergency medical response.
. . . examine the public, social media communications of 110 emergency medical response teams and organizations in the immediate aftermath of the January 12, 2010 Haiti earthquake. We found the teams through an inductive analysis of Twitter communications acquired over the three-week emergency period from 89,114 Twitterers. We then analyzed the teams’ Twitter streams, as well as all digital media they generated and pointed to in their streams—blog posts, photographs, videos, status updates and field reports—to understand the medical coordination challenges they faced from pre-deployment readiness to on- the-ground action.
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Of the medical Twitterers we identified, it was the smaller organizations and NGOs that tweeted regularly, but without addressing a particular person. Furthermore, when they included URLs, those links led to identical content but posted in a different media, e.g., Facebook or website. The tweets provided valuable information about the teams’ situation but were simply broadcasts, without specific interaction with others. This is what we call beaconing behavior. Beaconing suggests an intention to be heard and a desire to be found. It happens when Twitterers (in this case) do not know to whom to direct their communications. It happens when there are not enough resources to put into navigating the social media space to find people who can help. In a world where social media are a means into a common though massive information space , beaconing is one precondition for coordination in decentralized situations, where potential collaborators are unknown.Of course the paper gives many more interesting details.